Insurgency in Russia's Caucasus a growing threat

AP News
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Posted: Mar 06, 2011 12:01 AM
Insurgency in Russia's Caucasus a growing threat

A police officer stopped at a traffic light in Dagestan's capital is gunned down from an adjacent car. A driver blows himself up at a checkpoint. The mayor has survived 15 assassination attempts.

Attacks on authorities take place almost daily in Dagestan, the largest and most violent of Russia's mostly Muslim provinces in the North Caucasus, a breeding ground for terror spreading all the way to Moscow.

The separatist movement that began more than 15 years ago as a battle for Chechnya's independence has mutated into a violent quest for an Islamic state in a region stretching some 650 kilometers (400 miles) east to west from the oil-rich Caspian Sea to Sochi, venue of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

That's hardly likely to happen, but it ensures that the Caucasus will continue to be post-communist Russia's festering wound.

The pattern is familiar: Poverty, a 50-percent unemployment rate and a government perceived as corrupt and abusive drive the discontented into the arms of Islamic militants, police crack down hard, innocents suffer and the separatists gain more recruits.

"There is a colossal gap between authorities and society in Dagestan," Alexei Malashenko, an expert on the Caucasus with the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow office, said in an interview. "People feel increasingly frustrated and the Islamists are becoming increasingly popular."

The North Caucasus includes six semiautonomous republics, and the Islamic insurgency seems to have a way of jumping from one republic to another.

No sooner did Moscow's long war against Chechen rebels achieve a fragile peace than Ingushetia became a rebel staging ground. Government subsidies and better administration relieved the pressure in Ingushetia, so now the focus is on Dagestan.

But the Kremlin appears to have no comprehensive strategy for countering the rising insurgency. Its response has largely been limited to reshuffling officials in charge of the region while failing to deliver promised reforms.

Now, after years of assurances that Caucasus militants were being brought under control, Russian officials are sounding an alarm. In January, after a suicide bomber killed 36 people at Moscow's biggest airport, President Dmitry Medvevev called terrorism the main threat to Russia and acknowledged that attacks had increased in 2010.

After the bombing, Russia announced grand plans to build job-creating ski resorts in the region's breathtaking mountains. But a month later militants responded by killing three Russian ski tourists and blowing up a major ski lift. Police said they also defused a massive car bomb outside a resort hotel.

These attacks happened in another republic, tiny Kabardino-Balkariya, where attacks on authorities multiplied more than sevenfold to roughly four a week in 2010 and killed 42 police officers, by official count.

Overall, about 300 law enforcement agents were killed in the North Caucasus last year, and about 650 were wounded, according to official figures.

Caucasus insurgents claimed responsibility for the airport bombing and last year's double suicide bombing on the Moscow subway that killed 40. Doku Umarov, the Chechen who leads the rebellion and calls himself the Emir of the Caucasus, vowed that 2011 would be Russia's "year of blood and tears."

Russian authorities have repeatedly said that the rebels have close links with al-Qaida and get funds from sympathizers in the Arabian peninsula.

The insurgents don't appear to have anywhere near the strength to force secession from Russia, but with Moscow unable to suppress them, the region could face a long and violent stalemate. The militants operate in small, autonomous cells that are hard for authorities to track down, says Gennady Gudkov, a veteran counterintelligence officer and now a member of the Russian parliament.

Just over a decade ago, Dagestanis fought alongside Russian federal troops to fend off rebels who invaded from neighboring Chechnya. Chechnya has since grown more stable under the tough rule of its Kremlin-backed strongman, while Dagestan has become the main base for militants.

"In the Caucasus, Russia has effectively turned into a failed state," said political analyst Yulia Latynina. "In 1999 Islamists in Dagestan were marginals who suffered a defeat, but now they have become a powerful force."

Ruslan Gereyev, a sociologist monitoring the youth in Dagestan, said Islamic rebels are gaining popularity among the region's teenagers, who "see them as their idols."

A Russian SWAT team officer, who asked to be identified only as Nikolai because of the sensitivity of his job, said recruits are trained for several months, then go into action in autonomous groups of 10. He estimated the number of militants in Dagestan at about 500, many in their teens.

The recruiters seem to have large sums to attract jobless, impoverished recruits. Nikolai said a group of 12 militants recently wiped out by his unit had more than $1 million in cash. If they need funds quickly, the insurgents extort money from local businesses, he said.

But Isalmagomed Nabiyev, a human rights activist here, says Dagestanis probably fear the Islamists less than they fear the police, who "have all the power, but they act like bandits."

Although Chechnya was the root of the insurgency, it's now probably the toughest place for Islamic militants to operate. Kremlin-backed regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov, himself a former rebel, has co-opted many ex-militants into his paramilitary forces, which have been accused by rights activists of killing and torturing people with suspected links to militants.

"Kadyrov has been extremely cruel and quite successful in fighting the Islamists," Latynina said.

At the same time, Kadyrov also has sought to undercut the radicals by enforcing Islamic customs and building a colossal mosque, touted as Europe's largest. His construction projects created new jobs and transformed the capital, Grozny, from a war ruin into a modern city.

Unlike in Chechnya, where Kadyrov's word is law, Moscow's forces in Dagestan must navigate a web of shifting alliances in a population of 2.7 million consisting of dozens of ethnic groups.

Said Amirov, mayor of Dagestan's capital, Makhachkala, epitomizes the dangers a senior official position entails. He has been in a wheelchair since an assassination attempt in 1993, and has a private army of several hundred security guards. In 1998, a car bomb aimed at him brought down scores of houses and killed 19 people, but he escaped unhurt.

Gunbattles between security forces and suspected militants can last for hours in this city, a chaotic mix of drab Soviet-era apartment buildings and small private houses stretching between the mountains and the Caspian seaside. Nikolai, the SWAT team officer, said only in Dagestan has he seen a police precinct chief being driven in an armored Mercedes limousine with bodyguards. "And the militants aren't the only ones whom they want protection against."

Dagestan also has criminals who kill police for their weapons and officials for their expensive cars, and who kidnap people for ransom, he said. Such groups often are used as hired guns by rival clans.

Attacks on bars and stores selling alcohol are usually blamed on Islamic militants, but could also be the work of racketeers seeking protection money.

A waitress at the Luvr bar shudders at the memory of a January attack by three masked gunmen, which left two patrons badly burned. "They fired their guns in the air, splashed gasoline on the curtains and fled," said the waitress, who identified herself only by her first name, Patimat, for fear of reprisals.

Dagestan's regional leadership is considering an amnesty for rebels who lay down their arms _ a strategy that helped to pacify Chechnya and Ingushetia, the previous epicenter of Caucasus violence.

Ingushetia used to be under the control of a former KGB general who encouraged brutal security sweeps that fomented public anger. The current ruler, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, has sought to end abuses against civilians and amnestied many former rebels, and attacks have dropped considerably.

But rebels still have camps in forested mountains, and the suspected airport bomber came from Ingushetia.

The Czars took half of the 19th century to conquer the Caucasus, and analysts don't think the current insurgency can shake Russia's grip. In the turbulent years after the Soviet collapse, weakened Kremlin controls and empty coffers encouraged separatist sentiments, but today the militants are too few to force a separation, and the political and business elites wouldn't support it.

"The Caucasus will not break away from Russia because local elites get money from the federal budget," said Malashenko of the Carnegie Endowment.

The Caucasus factor will play an important role in Russia's politics as it approaches elections in March 2012 in which Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is widely expected to seek his return to the presidency. The second war in Chechnya began under Putin's leadership a few months before March 2000 election, and his tough posture helped him win the presidency.

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Isachenkov reported from Moscow. Sergei Venyavsky in Rostov-on-Don and Musa Sadulayev in Grozny, Russia contributed to this report.